Federal regulators take heat on pipeline proposal

By By Chris Chanlett

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) came to James Monroe High School at Lindside on May 4 to hear what people think about the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP). It would not be an exaggeration to say that FERC got an earful of reasons to deny the project. It would be an exaggeration to say that even one of the forty-five speakers liked the idea.

FERC is an obscure federal agency in the Department of Energy responsible for overseeing the location, construction, operation, and abandonment of natural gas pipelines across state lines. According to Paul Friedman, the environmental project manager who chaired the Lindside event, FERC has “only 1,500 employees, nowhere near enough to accomplish all the reviews. So we hire independent contractors.”

The five commissioners who sit atop FERC are appointed by the president and approved by Congress. They will decide whether the MVP and other parallel proposals will gain eminent domain power to build massive pipelines.

The MVP wants to construct a 42-inch diameter tube over 300 miles long from northern West Virginia to central Virginia. It would carry fracked natural gas at 1500psi through four compressors at a rate of two billion cubic feet a day.

The present alignment calls for a minimum 9-foot by 9-foot trench through 16 counties including 16 miles in Summers County from Green Sulphur Springs through Pence Springs and under the Greenbrier River. At present estimates it would cost over $3 billion to install beginning next year.

FERC has routinely approved virtually every pipeline over several decades. It has never faced the avalanche of public involvement that recent bigger-than-ever concepts have generated. While northern West Virginia has been relatively quiet, Monroe County and Virginia counties to the east have been in an uproar.

Commenters at Lindside focused on the questionable engineering of cutting into steep rocky slopes, the invasion of traditional land values, and water, water, water. The MVP presently wants to cross Peters Mountain whose waters supply more than 6,000 customers through public systems, scores of private springs, and thousands more consumers by the Sweet Springs Water Company, winner of many awards.

Rick Eades, a hydrogeologist, said three major springs on the mountain each run over 1000 gallons per hour, which amounts to over 5 billion gallons per year. The recharge area to provide that quantity, plus hundreds of smaller outflows, is poorly understood. How, he asked, is FERC’s environmental impact statement (EIS) ever going to define that vulnerability.

Howdy Hendritz, founder and retired manager of the Sweet Springs Water Company, learned from an MVP engineer at the meeting how the consortium expected to cross the steepest grades on the route. It would require cutting some trenches down 50-60 feet through the ridge tops to allow the pipe a feasible angle. Then the engineer said the rubble would be returned to its original contour and the mountain restored.

A parade of speakers demanded that FERC respect their cultural attachment to the land. Maury Johnson of Greenville said his ancestors settled the area in the 1700s and had always considered themselves stewards. He says his affected farm in the corridor is a preserve that holds thirteen woodcock nests and numerous historic features along with his cattle operation.

One of the speakers from Preserve Craig (Virginia) described her multi-generation dairy farm that a few years ago went into debt to build soil conservation measures required to stay in business. Now she finds the same government about to permit a project that would undo much of sediment control the farm provided.

That farm’s drainage affects one of the few watersheds in Craig and Monroe counties that still hold the endangered spiny mussel. Larry Willis, stream ecologist at Virginia Tech, believes that one catastrophic precipitation event in the construction phase of the pipeline could finish off the once thriving species.

FERC reps also met with the board of the Red Sulphur Springs Public Service District to hear their fears of the MVP penetrating the karst complex that streams their water. An enlarged gas line completed recently to serve the Celanese plant has increased turbidity in their resource and required frequent filter changes to compensate.

Brian Kirk of Talcott, an engineer by education and occupation in the Navy’s nuclear program, compared the safety records of nuclear and natural gas. He asserted that the military’s nuclear operations had not caused a single accidental death in decades while the natural gas explosions had claimed over 500 lives, caused 2400 injuries and huge financial losses. He said the unregulated nature of that sector meant monster transmission lines were guaranteed to lead to more incidents.

Two speakers in particular brought the crowd to extended applause. Thomas Bouldin of Judson demanded that FERC clarify their definition of the public interest, the gold standard for the “certificate of convenience and necessity” to justify a pipeline right-of-way. Cookie Cole of Union railed against private corporations with governmental impunity overrunning local landowners. Speakers repeatedly contrasted the outside versus local interests in the issue.

Joe Chasnoff of Zenith, Kirk Bowers of the Sierra Club in Virginia, and other speakers related massive pipelines to the problems with fracking gas and its contribution of climate change. The pipelines would induce more water and air pollution at a time when national policies should be discouraging those trends.

After many presenters articulated similar arguments, the final speaker brought in a novel concern. A Monroe school teacher Autumn Dunbar said the pipeline might employ terrorists who could blow up the county and would definitely bring in dangerous criminal-types for temporary employment.

If the MVP can stick to its schedule, it will finalize its application to FERC in October and hopes for a decision to break ground in 2016. Citizens who wish to participate in the process can use the Internet at www.ferc.gov and go the eLibrary to read and make comments. All MVP comments must be addressed under docket number PF15-3-000. One can also call FERC at 1-866-208-3372.

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